From Media – The region has been plagued by a growing digital divide caused by a broadband network that has failed to deliver. The Athens County Broadband Coordinator, part of an initiative of Hocking Athens Perry Community Action (HAPCAP), and the Athens County Broadband Committee have been hard at work examining the current condition of broadband in Athens County and the broader region. For too many residents, broadband internet is simply not available. One recent study demonstrated that over half the households in the county do not have access to the federal standard for broadband connections. For many others, the services offered are unreliable or unaffordable, or both. 

The global pandemic has highlighted the issue of the growing digital divide. Numerous conversations at multiple levels of the community have taken place to find ways to address these problems. However, they have not provided a comprehensive path forward to achieving the goal of an accessible, affordable, reliable broadband network in Southeast Ohio. Today, a strategic plan that provides guidance for the county on meeting these challenges has been released. 

Over the past year, numerous developments have provided hope for the future of broadband in the region. A team of community stakeholders has formed a strategic plan to guide the county to maximize the potential of these developments. Paul Isherwood, Athens County Broadband Coordinator, has led the effort with the support of the Athens County Broadband Advisory Committee, which includes individuals representing multiple community sectors. Isherwood’s position with HAPCAP is funded by the Athens County Foundation and the Osteopathic Heritage Foundation of Nelsonville. 

The plan provides an overview of the broadband network’s current status in the county and the challenges that its deficiencies present. Furthermore, the plan includes detail on the county’s current programs at both state and federal levels to implement a network built for the community. Notably, the plan recognizes the need to look beyond broadband infrastructure and prioritize action in three important areas: affordability, digital inclusion and literacy, as well as continued advocacy. 

“If we build the fastest network in the country, it will not have the impact we need if our community members cannot afford to access it. Once given access, if we do not ensure our community has the devices and skills required to take full advantage of this network’s possibilities, we will again fail to see the impact the county needs. With the national focus on broadband at an unparalleled high, it is crucial that policymakers and internet service providers understand the needs and challenges of rural America as plans are put into place to close the national digital divide. Counties like Athens must have a voice at the table for this to happen. This strategy and the work of the Broadband Coordinator are crucial to providing that voice,” said Isherwood

On March 18, Governor DeWine announced the state’s Residential Broadband Grant Program winners. Athens County appeared to miss out. However, BroadbandOhio, the state’s broadband development office, has secured binding assurances from Spectrum to complete their proposed projects in the county within two years. These plans would make Spectrum fiber optic connections available to thousands of households that previously faced poor or no service at all. Peter Voderberg, BroadbandOhio’s Chief, has also confirmed that another $268 million of funding for residential broadband expansion would be made available soon. With this strategy in place, Athens County is in a strong position to support internet service providers that want this funding to build the broadband network our communities need.

You can find the strategic plan here. For more information about broadband in Athens County, contact Paul Isherwood at paul.isherwood@hapcap.org. For information on all of HAPCAPs programs, contact Valerie Addis Keeney at valerie.keeney@hapcap.org or call (740) 767 – 4500. 

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